Best Cacio e Pepe Recipe & History

What is Cacio e Pepe

Cacio e Pepe, literally cheese and pepper is one of the oldest pasta dishes of Lazio.  It is a very cheap dish to make, using only two ingredients; Pecorino Romano and black pepper.  Whilst it may seem simple it is the most difficult to get right as the luxurious creamy cheese sauce is just a mix of cheese and pasta water but it is incredibly hard to get the right consistency.  But when you do…. It is a taste explosion of silky, creamy, cheesiness with a kick of pepper at the end.

Cacio e' Pepe
Cacio e’ Pepe

The Origin

Tradition says that the shepherds prepared this dish out of the few dry ingredients that they had to hand as they tended their sheep.  

Long ago when Italy was a country of farmers and shepherds, they had to move the cattle seasonally.  It was a phenomenon typical of central Italy, due to the geographical makeup of the country: long flat coasts separated by the Apennine mountains.   Shepherds moved their flocks between higher pastures in summer and lower valleys in winter to feed. A regular migration of men, oxen and sheep, cheered by the sound of bells around the animal’s necks and the barking of dogs that gathered the herds.  

The diet of this pastoral society was the dairy products of their flocks and herds (milk, butter, yogurt and cheese) and the lamb that they tended.  The most suitable animals to face the Apennine trails were sheep. Shepherds milked their flock and as they moved along the ridges of hills and mountains they noticed that the heat made the milk acid, it ‘curdled’.  This curdled milk or curds as we call them in English was the ‘discovery’ of the first cheese and following due processing, Pecorino was created. It became the first and original seasoning for bread and later a crude pasta made from flour and water.

The Special Ingredient

Pecorino Romano DOP is the oldest and best known of the Italian pecorino cheeses. It dates back to the Roman Empire and by 227 BC this strong, salty cheese spread to Sardinia, where identical environmental and breeding conditions existed.  Sardinia still produces Pecorino Sardo today, it has a slightly different flavour than the Roman one. Pecorino Romano is made using lamb rennet and is aged five months to serve at the table and at least eight months if you want to use it grated as a pasta dressing.

Recreating at home

This dish may be difficult to recreate at home without the right cheese.  If you can get a piece of whole pecorino and grate it yourself this is best.  The pecorino should not be too aged; if it is too dry then the creamy cheese sauce is harder to achieve.  Unfortunately, Parmigiano or grana padano is not ideal, as you need the cheese to blend to the perfect consistency.  You could try an extra mature cheddar finely grated.  

This dish is all about temperature, timing and mixing well!  Here are some tips to get it just right!!

  1.  Try to use a fresh pecorino so that the grated cheese melts into the pasta water to a cream
  2. The pasta water is essential to achieving the creaminess of this dish – no oil or cream is required! 
  3. The temperature of the pan is very important – if it is too hot your cheese sauce will become a rubbery mass of cheesy rubber at the bottom of the pan!

Cacio e’ Pepe is so notoriously difficult to get right – I struggle to imagine a shepherd whipping this one up in the mountains hundreds of years ago!!!

Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe

Time 30 mins

Level: Medium

Servings: 4 people

Ingredients

350 g pasta (Spaghetti, Tonnarelli)

200 g pecorino romano 

Heaped tablespoon of Black Peppercorns (you can used mixed if you like)

Method

  1. Add your pasta to boiling water.  Use enough water to cover and cook the pasta but not too much.  The starch of the pasta water is essential for the dish.
  1. Take the whole peppercorns and crush them, put them in a frying pan or wok to toast them on a low heat.  You will smell the pepper aroma as the cracked pepper toasts.
  1. Add two ladles of pasta water to the peppercorns and lower the heat, you want the water infused with the pepper.
  1. When the pasta is ‘al dente’ (slightly undercooked), remove the pasta and add to the water with the peppercorns on a low heat to cook, stirring continuously.  The pasta will start to shine.
  1. In a small bowl add half the pecorino and a ladle of pasta water and mix with a whisk until it is a creamy consistency.  Add the rest of the pecorino, more water and whisk again.
  1. Take the pan with pasta and pepper off the heat.  Mix the cheese cream into the pasta stirring continually coating all the pasta and ensuring the sauce does not touch the hot pan for too long.  If the consistency is too dry you can add more pasta water.
  1. Serve with another sprinkling of pepper and more pecorino if desired. 

Buon appetito! – If you enjoyed this article check out our 7 Must Try Foods In Italy.

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